Suspicious fire sends two to local burn centers, investigation underway

Two people are in the hospital and three others are without a home after a morning blaze tore through a two-story building that housed five apartments and a popular Elkhart laundromat.

9-1-1 calls began pouring into Elkhart's Communication Center around 6:45 a.m. Callers reported flames shooting from the back of the two-flat at the corner of Franklin and Union Streets, about one mile west of downtown.

Residents told firefighters they heard an argument brewing in the rear downstairs apartment before a woman started screaming "fire." Investigators say Drew Williams, who lived downstairs, was then seen running from the building clinging onto a mysterious object wrapped in a blanket.

“We have no idea what he had taken out of here and have no idea where he is now. It does make me wonder why someone would run away with something,” Chief Inspector Robert Smith with the Elkhart Fire Department said.

Donna Garber said she woke-up to the yelling. Garber got out of bed and looked out her window when she saw the unwelcoming glow of an inferno burning below. With little time to react, the Elkhart County native ran out of her one-bedroom apartment, down a flight of stairs and into Union Street. By 10 a.m., she was clinging onto a tiny shoebox box containing the few uncharred possessions she and her husband had left. A lifetime of photographs and her late grandmother’s porcelain doll collection were just a few of her prized belongings incinerated in the blaze.

"They're newlyweds and things were looking-up in a positive direction for them and now they've lost everything. I’m not sure what they'll do,” Garber’s sister Lisa Holdread said.

Despite an ongoing investigation, inspectors are confident the fire ignited in the lower rear apartment, below Garber’s. While sweeping the unit for evidence, they found two propane torches and a burnt gas can.

"I’m looking for things that might have helped accelerate the fire because it seemed to have taken off very quickly from the time we were first called and by the time our guys got on-the-scene,” Smith added.

Fire officials say a concrete firewall installed during a recent addition kept the blaze from spreading beyond the two rear units; sparing three apartments upstairs and the Hart City Laundromat down below.

“All the devastation was held back here to these two apartments, which was fortunate. Buildings that have firewalls serve their purpose, case in point right here,” Smith remarked.

"I personally learned a big lesson today about the importance of family and the unimportance of those material things that can always be replaced. It's a miracle that my sister wasn't hurt at all, she was very lucky,” Holdread concluded.

Investigators say damage is around $75,000; a costly figure as none of the tenants had renter's insurance.

Firefighters say the two residents injured were badly burned from the knees down. Stephanie Sandusky was flown to Bronson Methodist Hospital’s burn unit in Kalamazoo, while her roommate, Drew Williams, was taken to Elkhart General Hospital with burns to his right leg and hand. Investigators plan on interviewing both victims about their argument and what William ran off with.

Anyone with information about this fire is urged to call the Elkhart Police Department at: (574) 295-7070.

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